We use identity strategically. Travelers from the US and UK claim to be Australian, because Australians are seen as having less money. If I want to ignore the boat touts and flower wallahs that swarm along the ghats, I can pretend not to understand them, even as they call out, “Hello Japan! Konichiwa!” If they press further -- “You from Korea? China?” -- I can say that I’m from Vietnam and that flusters many of them. How many tourists from Vietnam do you see on a daily basis? Sometimes, I can play the inscrutable Asian too well, however; when I passed a Western tourist, I nodded to my fellow traveler, and he said, “Konichiwa.”
But the touts can be persistent. One followed me for what seemed like twenty minutes, trying to convince me to go to a silk shop, to follow him. This, even after I had claimed to be from Vietnam and feigned ignorance of English. He pursued me to the Harishchandra Ghat, the lesser burning ghat, where he said that I should give him a donation to help pay for the wood. “It costs 4000 Rs. to burn a body. Understand.” He kept repeating this: understand. It wasn’t a question -- do you understand me? -- but a command given in desperation -- you must understand me.
Old women swept the steps with straw brooms, fighting against the tide of dirt and goat droppings. People laid out their laundry on the steps; the ghats became blocks of color from bed sheets, saris, school uniforms. The Indians are particularly hard on their laundry: they twisted their washing, raising it over their heads, and slammed it down onto stones set up on the edge of the river. It seemed as if they were clubbing their clothes into cleanliness. The air echoed the smacks of their exertion.
I sat in the shade of the towers of the Man Mandir Ghat, in full view of a cow which let forth a torrent of piss. One man carried his elderly mother in his arms up the stairs; I imagine she had just finished her morning bath. The very picture of filial devotion.
And it was here that a man offered me a shave, and, failing to convince me of that, proceeded to give me a massage. “Good for the circulation,” he said. It wasn’t bad, by any means, but I suppose pestering me for money at the end was inevitable. “Indians pay me 100 Rs.,” he said, but I doubt that he goes up to random Indians and turns a handshake into a hand massage. In the end, he had to be happy with 65 Rs., which I suspect was already overly generous.
Then, in the evening, clouds. It seemed improbable, with the relentlessness of the sun at any other time. This time, I got a front-row seat to the ganga aarti ceremony, close enough so that I got chastised for having my shoes on and splashed from behind with Ganga water from a woman performing a puja. There seemed to be a political VIP this evening; he sat on a raised platform, ringed with flowers. A group of men raised their hands and cheered when he spoke, their voices competing with the boat touts. I was made to step aside as he came down the steps and onto a special two-tiered boat to watch the ceremony. I saw the preparations, which had escaped me from the boat ride before: devotees lit the line of small candles in terra cotta bowls lining the ghat. The orange-robed priests performed the ceremony dutifully, turning to face each of the cardinal directions, while behind them, some bored-looking girls in bright saris waved brushes, mirroring the priests‘ gestures. And the noise: on my side, a man with a drum; on the other, a man with a hand gong. Fire, sound, and movement -- and yet it didn’t make more sense to me this time than it had before. People came off the boats, carrying water bottles and jugs that they had filled with Ganga water. Sediment had settled in the nooks and crannies of the bottles. For a moment, I envied their connection to the divine. Was this what all the Western hippies -- and there were quite a few of them on the ghats -- had come in search of? Or is this a particular cultural experience, knowing when to raise your hands, knowing when to clap, knowing the words to the ritual? Or is it personal? -- one woman seemed on the verge of tears as she lay out prostrate on the ground. Perhaps it was all of these, and more. It was also commercial: a collection plate was passed around, and a man selling DVDs of the ceremony made his way through the crowd.